In university, I took a Literary Traditions course that featured Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times. It tells the story of Coketown, a fictional, industrial mill town in the 1850s where buildings are bland, sooty, carbon copies of one another. Things are overseen by factory owner Josiah Bounderby and rigid, hard-nosed educator Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind’s job is to stamp out any and all creativity from the town’s schoolchildren, thereby creating useful automatons for Bounderby’s factory. The workers get married, have families, and put their children in Gradgrind’s care. Thus, the cycle never ends.
In our first class about the book, the professor asked us who we thought the protagonist of the story was. Since most of the characters are given equal weight, we gave a variety of answers. Most thought it was Thomas Gradgrind, some thought it was his daughter, Louisa. A few thought it was Bounderby, others guessed Stephen Blackpool, a lowly worker in Bounderby’s factory.
Then there was the guy who sat next to me, who gave what would go down as the worst answer I heard in my six years of university. With the embarrassing esotericism that only self-conscious suck ups can muster, he said, “I think the main character is Coketown.”
This answer was stupid for two reasons: 1) he just wanted to appear like an interesting, philosophical contrarian (he was the type to wear a huge scarf indoors in September and glasses without a perscription), and 2) no matter how fleshed out a city is, settings cannot, by definition, be characters (which are, by definition, people).
I bring this up because I just finished reading China Mieville’s setting-rich sci-fi novel Perdido Street Station. Then I read some of the reviews, seemingly written by other non-prescription-wearing, scarf-toting poseurs and my life flashed before my eyes.
I’ve owned Perdido for at least five years, but I’ve admired it from afar for much longer. Mieville has always fascinated me–with his tattoos, piercings, high brow accent, and low brow interests. In so many ways he’s unlike any writer I’ve ever seen. Because of that, he was always someone I wanted to read, but he was perpetually someone I would “get to” eventually.
With Adam’s 2018 TBR Challenge, I finally found an excuse to dust Perdido off and give it a shot. I’m (sort of) glad I did, but it wasn’t easy.
I originally DNF’d Perdido after 50 pages. For the same reasons I just cannot for the life of me get into Saga (the comic book phantasmagoria that’s swept the industry for the past few years), I could not stand reading Mieville.
It’s just unabashedly absurd. Perdido Street Station features women with bugs instead of heads, men grafted onto mechanical bodies, giant birds with the bodies of grown men, sculptures made of bug shit, a race called “Cactucae” that literally looks like walking cactus’ with faces, and the list goes on, and on, and on.
There is little semblance of a plot, which can be fine with me, but when all you’re left with is a grimy, festering, disease-ridden slum full of bug-fucking weirdos and violent, drug-riddled assholes, I’m not happy.
Rather than DNF my first challenge book of the year, I decided to give it a go on audiobook. To my surprise, it was a massive help. The narrator was so terrific it allowed me to plod through the remaining 20+ hours. It was completely obnoxious, but I did it. Call it a win, regardless.
I’ll give Mieville his due: he’s a master world builder. He’s crafted something wholly original here, and he spends 600+ pages detailing and expanding New Crobuzon. The trouble, for me, is that all the world building in the, well, world, means nothing when it’s a world I can’t stand visiting.
Many of Mieville’s created species are intriguing, maybe even fascinating, but eventually they’re so ridiculous that it’s hard to take them seriously. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer my women without bug faces, mandibles, and thick gelatinous spit.
An unrelenting focus on the setting, combined with characters whose physical traits dwarf their personalities, says something to me: no one here is interesting. It’s all visual, it’s external. It’s stalling, yet again, at page 550 so that Mieville can go on yet another 4-page diatribe about some foul street or river sludge or how much shit is on the walls.
He literally talks about how much literal shit exists on the walls. He talks about shit a great amount. A weird amount.
“It had acquired a name, Spatters, that reflected the desultory randomness of its outlines: the whole stinking shanty-town seemed to have dribbled like shit from the sky.”
Make no mistake, though, Mieville is smart. Holy shit is he smart. But at this point–Perdido was just his second novel–he hadn’t yet figured out how to ride the line and speak like an actual person.
This book is chock full of words like prestigitation, salubrious, avaricious, penury, susurrus, palimpsest, juddered, chitinous, and vertiginous.
They’re all wonderful in their own way but no one fucking talks like this. It’s a chore to read something like this. They’re unnatural and they break up the rhythm of every sentence they’re in.
I wish I had the fortitude to put together something more thoughtful and organized, but I just can’t with this book. It drives me crazy just thinking about it and, frankly, I just want it out of my life. As soon as I finished it, I put my paperback in a box that I’m later going to donate. Part of me actually feels bad about it. Some poor soul is going to feel just like this and it’ll be all my fault.
My Goodreads Rating:
Favourite Quote: “New Crobuzon was a city unconvinced by gravity.” I don’t even like this, which is exactly my point.
Some Examples of Weird Character Names: Yagharek, Derkhan Blueday, MontJohn Rescue, Teafortwo, The Weaver, Lucky Gazid, Fratel Sanchem Vansetty, Jack Half-a-Prayer
Awards Won: The prestigious Arthur C. Clarke (for best sci-fi novel first published in the UK) in 2001. Nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards. So clearly, what do I know.
The Perfect Encapsulation, from Tor.com: “But this is not a book you read for plot, even the first time through. The first time, you read it as a travelogue of New Crobuzon … you re-read it for the pleasurable intricacy of Bas-Lag’s cultural and economic substructures and to appreciate the inventive strangeness of the social details”
If this sounds interesting to you, have at it. For me, it’s a nightmare. Almost literally.